October 09, 2006
Microfinance Crosses Continental Divide with $100 Million Commitment from TIAA-CREF
by Bill Baue
TIAA-CREF inaugurated its Global Microfinance Investment Program by purchasing from ProCredit
Holdings $43 million in private equity shares, a new strategy in microfinance.
Looking back on September 2006 from the future, historians may consider last month as a tipping
point in the development of microfinance as its own asset class. Two developments in particular
helped shift the scales. At the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Citigroup (ticker: C) announced $100 million in loans
to 132 microfinance institutions (MFIs) in 39 different countries. The week before, the huge
academic retirement fund manager TIAA-CREF
announced its new $100 million Global Microfinance Investment Program (GMIP), jumpstarted with a
$43 million private equity investment in ProCredit Holding.
While both are clearly
important, the TIAA-CREF announcement breaks significant new ground on two counts. First, while
Citigroup is employing the traditional mechanism of debt to MFIs for feeding directly into
microfinance loans, TIAA-CREF sets precedent by providing broader structural support for
microfinance through an equity investment that supports ProCredit's entire infrastructure. Second,
assets for the deal come from TIAA
Traditional, a $160 billion guaranteed fixed annuity account with nearly 2.3 million
participants, instead of the CREF Social Choice Account (SCA), the $8 billion socially responsible
investing (SRI) option used by almost half a million investors. The move thus represents a
mainstreaming of SRI within TIAA-CREF.
The investment, the first major move by TIAA-CREF's
new Social and Community Investing Department established earlier this year, involves primarily new
shares issued by ProCredit, as well as some purchased from the International Finance Corporation
(IFC). The move also responded to a recent survey of TIAA-CREF
participants revealing broad support for SRI strategies that address human rights and community
development. Microfinance is a particularly effective tool for advancing the double bottom line of
social as well as financial returns.
The announcement met with kudos from microfinance
"This deal crosses the Continental Divide," said David Satterthwaite, chief
website covering the microfinance industry, and CEO of Prisma MicroFinance. "TIAA-CREF's direct equity
investment was very shrewd given the stream of guaranteed debt financing that ProCredit manages."
For example the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the US government agency that provides financing and
political risk insurance to US businesses investing overseas, guaranteed a $30 million debt
investment Citigroup made in ProCredit last year.
Scott Budde, head of TIAA-CREF's new
Social and Community Investment Department and manager of GMIP, notes that this was one aspect of
TIAA-CREF's decision to go with an equity investment, and to go with ProCredit.
a particularly powerful way to get double-bottom-line returns because, in a financial institution
like ProCredit, it has been leveraged with deposits and debt," Mr. Budde told SocialFunds.com.
ProCredit differs from many other MFIs by offering equity in addition to debt investment.
ProCredit also differs in that it owns each of the micro-banks that make microfinance loans that
help lift borrowers out of poverty in developing economies, whereas most MFIs work with loose
affiliations of banks.
"This unique aspect has resulted in ProCredit being very effective
at tapping into capital markets," said Mr. Budde. "ProCredit can issue equity that it can then
downstream to its microfinance banks in each of about 20 countries that then goes right out to
Borrowers pay interest rates on microfinance loans of anywhere from mid-teens
in more developed countries where ProCredit operates, such as Bulgaria, to 30 to 40 percent in the
least developed countries, such as the Congo or Sierra Leone, according to Mr. Budde. While these
rates may sound high, they are fairly standard for microfinance due to the high degree of risk
incurred, the extensive technical assistance provided, and the provision of alternatives to the
only other sources of capital: loan sharks who charge 100 to 200 percent interest.
TIAA-CREF does not disclose its rate of return for private equity investment, but Mr. Budde
expects it to fall "north of the public markets and south of venture capital."
met with approval from longtime critics.
"This is a very good step," said Neil Wollman,
coordinator of the Make TIAA-CREF
Ethical campaign and a senior fellow of the Peace Studies Institute
at Manchester College. "I see some benefits from being invested in the TIAA Traditional Account
in making SRI more mainstream."
"Anywhere that socially beneficial investment can be
placed is a plus for all concerned, in my mind, no matter the nature of the rest of the fund,"
Prof. Wollman told SocialFunds.com.
TIAA-CREF took into account the fact that 70 percent
of Social Choice Account investors also invest in TIAA Traditional. The remaining 30 percent may
avoid TIAA Traditional because it holds Treasury Bills, which provide direct support for the
Department of Defense and hence many SRI funds avoid them on anti-militarism grounds.
this does not mean TIAA-CREF should not continue to strengthen the Social Choice Account," said
Prof. Wollman. "The inclusion of community investing, social venture capital, and some enhanced
screening will make SCA a model SRI fund to be emulated by others."
Mr. Budde confirmed
that investing in community development financial institutions (CDFIs) is high on the agenda of the
Social and Community Investing Department. The department has also expanded its relationship with
KLD Research & Analytics, which provides the data upon which the department bases its screens.
Finally, TIAA-CREF will focus increasing attention on social issues as it ramps up its shareowner
advocacy and engagement.